Baseball's top prospects shine in the Arizona Fall League beginning Oct. 11
By Joe Sparacio
Welcome to grad school. No, it's not time to break out the books and start flipping through research journals. This is baseball prep school, where players go when they've dominated Double-A and Triple-A but still have some tinkering to do before establishing themselves in The Show. Want to refine the movement on your slider? How about fix a hole in your swing? Simply need some extra at-bats against elite pitching? Enlightenment awaits in MLB's Arizona Fall League, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and begins this week -- just ask the recipient of last season's NL Rookie of the Year Award, Kris Bryant.
"[The Arizona Fall League] was fun. I'm starting to see a lot of those guys come up in the Big Leagues," said the Chicago slugger. "It was 30 games against really good Minor League competition -- the best of the best. I think that really helped my development."
Bryant played for the Mesa Solar Sox in 2013 alongside current Cubs teammates Jorge Soler and Addison Russell. The impressive team also boasted Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr. and Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis, as well as a number of MLB's current Top 100 prospects. Bryant launched a team-high six homers with an incredible 1.184 OPS over 20 games, a telling forecast of what he would soon do in the Majors.
Referred to by some as an experimental training ground for MLB, the Arizona Fall League formed in 1992 as a place for players to hone their skills and practice competitively in a climate suitable to play. It currently consists of six teams -- the Mesa Solar Sox, Salt River Rafters, Scottsdale Scorpions, Glendale Desert Dogs, Peoria Javelinas and Surprise Saguaros -- that are separated into two divisions and play at several Arizona Spring Training facilities. Each of MLB's 30 teams rotates its AFL allegiances, sending six rising stars apiece to a different squad each fall.
The 2016 season, which begins on Oct. 11 and stretches until the championship game on Nov. 9, marks 25 years of AFL play. Over those two-and-a-half decades, the AFL has groomed its fair share of phenoms -- including Yoan Moncada, MLB's No. 1 prospect, and Gleyber Torres, who both appear on AFL rosters this year. Back in 2014, the Indians' Francisco Lindor, now a Rookie of the Year candidate and MLB All-Star, was simply a 20-year-old determined to prove to his Cleveland club that he had enough offensive skills to back up his stellar defensive abilities. He played in 24 games with the Javelinas during the fall, and led the team in runs scored and home runs.
"I'm just trying to make the game a lot easier and I'm trying to focus," he said at the time. "I need to work on my baserunning. I have to work on my hitting. My power numbers went up, but my average went down. There's a lot to improve, but I'm working on these [things] and having fun. My dream is to be in the Big Leagues and to stay in the Big Leagues for a long time."
Seven-and-a-half months later, Lindor would make his debut, and in 99 games in 2015, he batted an impressive .313 with 12 homers and 50 runs scored. In 2016, his first full season, he formed part of a strong core that helped the Indians exceed expectations and make the playoffs, leading the team in hits and runs scored all while again batting over .300.
Lindor's story is anything but an anomaly. Over the last quarter-century, 2,600 Fall League graduates (nearly 60 percent of all those who have played) have reached the Major Leagues. The training grounds have produced an incredible 247 All-Stars -- including 33 in 2016 -- 26 Rookie of the Year Award winners, 70 Gold Glove winners and 80 Silver Sluggers. It has even launched the careers of 26 Major League managers and 54 umpires.
"When I got the invitation to play [in the AFL]," Pedroia said, "I learned so much. I was on the taxi squad, so I played on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it was the first time that I didn't have to play every day, so I got a chance to watch the other guys that were playing at higher levels and learn the game.
"That helped me move forward in my career -- it was a big step helping me get to the Major Leagues and become a good player."
In 2013, the AFL elected Pedroia into its Hall of Fame, which was founded in 2001. To qualify, a player must have been named either Rookie of the Year or league MVP, or earned an All-Star nod, a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger Award. Candidates are then placed on a ballot for consideration by the AFL Selection Committee, comprised of baseball executives who have participated in the Fall League's growth.
The AFL Hall of Fame is bursting with baseball icons, from Derek Jeter -- elected in 2001 -- to Roy Halladay (2006), Torii Hunter (2007), Mark Teixeira (2012) and even Andrew McCutchen last season, but it wasn't until 2016 that a graduate made it into the Major League shrine at Cooperstown. While Jeter, Pujols and others will certainly follow a similar path, Mike Piazza made history as the first Arizona Fall League alumnus to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame this season. The former Sun Cities Solar Sox catcher played in the AFL in 1992 and led the team to a championship, hitting .291 with 23 RBI.
"The only way that I thought that I'd be here was if I bought a ticket," Piazza said in his Cooperstown induction speech. "It is a testament to our great game that dreams can come true."
The players in the AFL represent the future of Major League Baseball, and that fact becomes increasingly apparent as more and more graduates hit Big League rosters and experience success. Last season, both league MVPs and Cy Young Award winners were AFL alumni, and that's not an uncommon occurrence.
"I remember when I was told that I was going to play [in the AFL]," recalled Pedroia, the 2008 AL MVP. "You're excited. It's a special league. … The players that come here, they're the future of the game. They're going to come up and be the guys that you see playing in the World Series."
That's the ultimate goal: Make the Big Leagues, make the World Series and then win it all. Just ask Brandon Crawford (2009, '11 Scottsdale Scorpions), Alcides Escobar (2005 Peoria Javelinas), Eric Hosmer (2010 Surprise Rafters), Posey (2009 Scottsdale Scorpions) or practically any star that you can think of. Those guys are Major League champs now, but before even making it to the Bigs, they went to baseball graduate school. We can all agree that they passed with flying colors.
This article appears in the MLB Official World Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
Joe Sparacio is a project assistant editor for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.